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Tell us about your background in design and design education. What got you started in the field? I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to design school. I couldn’t go to design school. Design is seen as a hobby in many cultures of color. I designed and launched my first website in 2010 and my first app in 2013, and I fell in love with it.

It wasn’t until I met designers who were creating dope presentations, logos and websites at Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) that I realized I could make a living doing design. I remember grabbing some groceries during our lunch break with Serifcan Ozcan, the design director at W+K at the time, who pushed me to consider design as a legit field. I guess in many ways, me pursuing design is a nod to a lot of the designers who have helped me along the way as well as to future designers of color.

You’ve just launched Useful School, a branding and product design school for people of color (POC), with its inaugural class. What was the impetus for you to establish the school? I started Useful School because it’s something I wanted and needed. Others feel the same. Professionals like Forest Young and Oriel Pascal Davis-Lyons, educators like Lesley Ann Noel, and colleagues and friends encouraged me to pursue this. So, I built a prototype of the site and announced it in December of 2021. I shared it around, and students started applying in droves. We had enough candidates to fill our first few classes in a matter of hours after announcing it.

Currently, we offer beginner and advanced classes in digital product design, and we already have a few hundred applications for branding, graphic design and other classes as well. I encourage anyone reading this to apply, even if it’s for a class we don’t offer yet. Tell us what you’d like to see!

Useful School operates on a pay-what-you-can model to break down financial barriers to entry. How does the model work, and how can designers looking to make a difference sponsor students? Seriously, it’s pay-what-you-can. Students aren’t pressured to pay a specific amount; it’s whatever they can contribute. No predatory loans. No income-shared agreements. We typically recommend students contribute 1 to 5 percent of their salary, but everyone’s situation is different.

In addition to student support, we have sponsors, partners and individuals who provide funding and other critical resources. Some of our latest sponsors include Google, Hyperakt, Working Not Working and Asana. Email me at ritesh@usefulschool.com if you’d like to sponsor or partner with us, or head to our Give page to contribute individually.

I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to design school. I couldn’t go to design school. Design is seen as a hobby in many cultures of color.”

I love how Useful School’s curriculum is built around centering POC at every step, like using typefaces by POC designers. How has it been working with established POC designers to provide materials? All the students are POC. All the speakers are POC. The examples we use are from POC. The fonts we use in class are from POC. Based on personal experience and data published by AIGA and Google a few years ago, I knew POC needed the most support. So, the decision to focus on POC was an easy, natural decision to make.

Having established POC designers support the students either through Q&As, portfolio reviews, or other ways has been seamless. So far, we’ve had support from Dantely Davis, the former chief design officer of Twitter, and many others from Headspace, Work & Co., Spotify, Netflix and more.

We’ve seen a lot of increased interest lately in bringing equity to the design world, yet the industry remains predominantly white. What kinds of things do you think we can do better to support designers of color? There’s a ton! Here’s a few ideas:

Support education for POC. Useful School, One School and other initiatives need funding and critical resources to exist.

Pay POC. You can find them on great places like rememory.directory, peopleofcraft.com and Working Not Working.

Consider fonts from POC first, before turning to the typical avenues: library.typographica.org/black-type-designers-foundry-owners and this Google spreadsheet, and there are amazing POC designers on futurefonts.xyz as well.

Decolonize and divest. Read Eye on AIGA’s article “The Design Collective Taking on Structural Racism in the Industry” and watch Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU) dean Dori Tunstall’s lecture at California College of the Arts, “Decolonizing Design Practices in Academia.”

What excites you the most about design right now? There is a big wave of educational platforms serving POC. I love what Dori Tunstall is doing at OCADU, what assistant professor Lesley Ann-Noel is doing at North Carolina State University’s department of design studies and what Juan Villanueva has been doing in type design at Type West Online. These organizations will keep the momentum going and enable more POC to enter and thrive in the creative industry. ca

Ritesh Gupta is the founder of Useful School. He focuses on supporting rising POC talents to help them break into the industry, get promoted and start their own practices through a POC-centered approach. Gupta has been in the creative industry for more than ten years, working with Wieden+Kennedy, Cooper Hewitt, R/GA, Mother Design, &Walsh, Disney, and two Shark Tank companies titled Pet Plate and Harvest. He also volunteers at Where Are The Black Designers?, a nonprofit design advocacy organization, and has given speeches at Brand New Conference, Type Directors Club, Yale, the Maryland Institute College of Art, New York University and Product School, as well as a feature on the podcast Designed this way

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